Thursday, August 20, 2009

St. Bernard of Clairvaux

(Image from

St. Bernard of Clairvaux was a medieval abbot who did much: he helped heal a schism in the medieval Church; he helped reform and revive monasteries by bringing almost the entire male side of his family into monastery life and in his life as a reform-minded abbot; he wrote beautiful hymns that survive to this day and are still sung in modern churches; he wrote incredible theology treatises still referred to today; he preached impassioned sermons to nobility and commoners alike. St. Bernard was a man used by God to reform and heal the fractured Church of the medieval period.

Born and living in the first half of the twelfth century, Bernard as a very young man was passionate about following Christ. You may read more about his biography below in today's "Saint of the Day" e-mail from

Man of the century! Woman of the century! You see such terms applied to so many today—“golfer of the century,” “composer of the century,” “right tackle of the century”—that the line no longer has any punch. But the “man of the twelfth century,” without doubt or controversy, has to be Bernard of Clairvaux. Adviser of popes, preacher of the Second Crusade, defender of the faith, healer of a schism, reformer of a monastic Order, Scripture scholar, theologian and eloquent preacher: any one of these titles would distinguish an ordinary man. Yet Bernard was all of these—and he still retained a burning desire to return to the hidden monastic life of his younger days.

In the year 1111, at the age of 20, Bernard left his home to join the monastic community of Citeaux. His five brothers, two uncles and some 30 young friends followed him into the monastery. Within four years a dying community had recovered enough vitality to establish a new house in the nearby valley of Wormwoods, with Bernard as abbot. The zealous young man was quite demanding, though more on himself than others. A slight breakdown of health taught him to be more patient and understanding. The valley was soon renamed Clairvaux, the valley of light.

His ability as arbitrator and counselor became widely known. More and more he was lured away from the monastery to settle long-standing disputes. On several of these occasions he apparently stepped on some sensitive toes in Rome. Bernard was completely dedicated to the primacy of the Roman See. But to a letter of warning from Rome he replied that the good fathers in Rome had enough to do to keep the Church in one piece. If any matters arose that warranted their interest, he would be the first to let them know.

Shortly thereafter it was Bernard who intervened in a full-blown schism and settled it in favor of the Roman pontiff against the antipope.
Bernard also wrote several hymns that survive to this day. The one I know best from its inclusion in my favorite hymns CD, 4Him Hymns, is "Sacred Head Now Wounded," but I also like the one I post below, copied from net hymnal:

Jesus, the very thought of Thee
With sweetness fills the breast;
But sweeter far Thy face to see,
And in Thy presence rest.

Nor voice can sing, nor heart can frame,
Nor can the memory find
A sweeter sound than Thy blest Name,
O Savior of mankind!

O hope of every contrite heart,
O joy of all the meek,
To those who fall, how kind Thou art!
How good to those who seek!

But what to those who find? Ah, this
Nor tongue nor pen can show;
The love of Jesus, what it is,
None but His loved ones know.

Jesus, our only joy be Thou,
As Thou our prize will be;
Jesus be Thou our glory now,
And through eternity.

O Jesus, King most wonderful
Thou Conqueror renowned,
Thou sweetness most ineffable
In Whom all joys are found!

When once Thou visitest the heart,
Then truth begins to shine,
Then earthly vanities depart,
Then kindles love divine.

O Jesus, light of all below,
Thou fount of living fire,
Surpassing all the joys we know,
And all we can desire.

Jesus, may all confess Thy Name,
Thy wondrous love adore,
And, seeking Thee, themselves inflame
To seek Thee more and more.

Thee, Jesus, may our voices bless,
Thee may we love alone,
And ever in our lives express
The image of Thine own.

O Jesus, Thou the beauty art
Of angel worlds above;
Thy Name is music to the heart,
Inflaming it with love.

Celestial Sweetness unalloyed,
Who eat Thee hunger still;
Who drink of Thee still feel a void
Which only Thou canst fill.

O most sweet Jesus, hear the sighs
Which unto Thee we send;
To Thee our inmost spirit cries;
To Thee our prayers ascend.

Abide with us, and let Thy light
Shine, Lord, on every heart;
Dispel the darkness of our night;
And joy to all impart.

Jesus, our love and joy to Thee,
The virgin’s holy Son,
All might and praise and glory be,
While endless ages run.

-- St. Bernard of Clairvaux

Some of my evangelical friends ask me why I am so interested in the saints. I love reading their stories because they were people just like me -- rather more talented, yes -- but people who strove to live this mortal life to the glory of Christ our Saviour. They may have done great things with vast love and humility, or they may have done little things with great understanding and devotion, but either way their lives shine with the infusion of the Holy Spirit. I wish my life to shine like theirs for the glory of God.

St. Paul stated in his epistle to the Philippians, "What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me -- practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you" (Philippians 4:9, ESV). We are to imitate those whom Christ has placed in our lives as examples. The beauty of the catholic (as in "universal," not necessarily Roman) Church is that we are not limited by time and place in imitation of those who have walked the Pilgrim Pathway well. The stories of Biblical people such as Silas, Barnabas, Luke, Paul, Peter, John, and many others are infused with God's leading Spirit, and so are the stories of the saints who follow after them through the 2,000 years of Kingdom history. We can be inspired by their lives, their sacrifices, their martyrdom, their very words that survive to this day -- inspired to live our lives more fully devoted to Christ Jesus, our Lord and Saviour who lived the only perfect life upon this earth and is the One most worthy of our emulation.


Anne said...

Susanne, your life does shine like the saints! You are a bright and beautiful star!

I love that song too, especially the first line, "Jesus the very thought of thee". Lovely!

How are you liking "The Family Cloister"?

Susanne Barrett said...

I love The Family Cloister. The author is cousin to my dear poet friend Kathryn -- he's a Presbyterian pastor in Oregon who loves the saints, especially Benedict. It's a very practical book -- truly excellent.

Thank you, Anne, for your encouragement today -- thanks be to God for dear friends! :)


Blog Widget by LinkWithin